It is 1809 at a Derbyshire country home, Sidley Park. The room is large and bare with a table in the center. Thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly is studying mathematics while her tutor, Septimus, looks at his papers. His tortoise, Plautus, sits immobile on the table.
She asks him what carnal embrace is, and he replies insouciantly that it is throwing one’s arms around a side of beef. She persists and says she heard the poet’s wife, Mrs. Chater, was caught in the gazebo in “carnal embrace,” but does not know with whom. Septimus is curious if she knows who the man was, and gives her a clinical definition using the terms “sexual congress” and a man’s genitals and woman’s genitals.
The butler, Jellaby, enters and gives Septimus a letter and says its writer, Chater, demands an immediate reply. Septimus says he is engaged in tutoring and cannot at this moment.
Thomasina ruminates that when one stirs rice pudding the jam disappears into it but cannot be stirred back out again. Septimus says time does not run backward. She asks if God is a Newtonian, and he jests with her that no, God is not an Etonian. She goes back to studying Fermat’s last theorem.
Chater enters in a huff, telling Septimus his business will not wait. Septimus tells Thomasina to go to the next room; she complies. Chater says Septimus insulted his wife, and he says coolly that no, he made love to his wife. Chater rages that he demands satisfaction and Septimus laughs that he cannot satisfy the whole Chater family.
Septimus then turns the conversation to praising Chater’s poetry, and Chater, though still affronted, begins to yield to this line of conversation. He is pleased with the approbation and asks if Septimus has read his new volume, “The Couch of Eros.” Septimus says he is going to review it, and then gets Chater to think that Mrs. Chater slept with him so he would give the poems a good review. Septimus asks Chater to sign his volume for him, and Chater, now mollified, happily agrees.
Noakes, the landscape architect hired by Lord Croom, enters. A few minutes later Lady Croom, the lady of the house, comes in with Captain Brice of the Royal Navy, her brother. She is complaining of Noakes’s ideas to transform her classical gardens into the Romantic and the picturesque. She laments her gazebo and her shrubbery, and how her place will now be one for haunts.
Thomasina returns and examines Noakes’s sketchbook, praising his work and saying clever things that her mother finds problematic.
Lady Croom asks about the structure replacing the gazebo, and Noakes replies that it is a hermitage intended for a hermit to abide within. She says her garden is perfect and regular and she does not want it to be irregular like her husband insists. She quotes the title of the Poussin painting, “Et in Arcadia ego” and mistranslates it as that she is in Arcadia. Thomasina stops short of correcting her.
Distant gunshots are heard. Lady Croom says Septimus’s friend has got a pigeon. Everyone leaves except Thomasina and Septimus, and she grumbles that her life has been full of the sound of guns.
Septimus tells her she ought not to act cleverer than her elders. She gives him a note Mrs. Chater told her to give to him, and asks if carnal embrace addles the brain. He nods “invariably” (18) and she cheerfully runs off. He sticks the note in his volume of Chater’s poems.
Stoppard’s extraordinary play starts off with a bang (Thomasina complains that she always hears gunshots). Immediately there is sex, jealousy, poetry, the Romantic, science and math, wit and verve, and intrigue. It is all revealed in a decorous tone, which Stoppard uses in his 1809 settings, but there is simmering, vital life beneath the surface of manners, charm, and rhetorical dexterity. This work is nearly a pastiche with its different tones, styles, characters, and themes, but what unifies it is its passion and its unflinching enthusiasm for the quest of knowledge.
Another unifying feature is the setting, which never changes though the drama unfolds both in 1809 and in the 1990s. The drawing room remains the same, and objects sitting on the table and added to it throughout the course of the play are picked up and regarded by characters on both side of the divide. The tortoise Plautus, belonging to Septimus, will become the tortoise Lightning, belonging to Valentine, the son of the modern-day Coverly family. Papers from 1809 are slightly more worn in the 1990s but yield the same information as they did more than a century before. One of the main themes of the play, then, is time. Septimus tells Thomasina that time cannot run backward, but clearly “Stoppard does run time backwards and forwards in his play. And the precocious Thomasina of 1809… is indeed a young woman well ahead of her own time,” as scholar Elizabeth Broderson writes.
Readers may need a bit of background on the science presented in the novel. At the time of Thomasina and Septimus, science had organized the natural world into a neat and hierarchical set of laws. Everything was unchanging and interchangeable and predictable; equations could be used to solve simple systems. As the 1800s progressed, scientists began to probe these pronouncements. Baron Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier articulated the new science of thermodynamics. Others began to wonder why a pendulum did not continue forever, or why a perpetual motion machine could not exist. Energy and heat were lost forever and some forces were irreversible – the second law of thermodynamics, then, stated that physical phenomena generate from order into disorder. In 1854 Hermann von Helmholtz said the entire cosmos would wind down and would eventually grow cold (see later sections of the play when Valentine discusses this). As for mathematics, linear maths such as algebra and geometry could not model the complexity of the natural world, and for a time scientists largely ignored things they could not model using linear equations. Further 20th-century scientific ideas such as quantum mechanics and relativity and particle physics also undermined Newton, and during WWI Gaston Julia tried his hand at mapping out nonlinear equations. The “Julia sets” looked like natural forms but without a computer he could not go further. Finally, scientists started using new computers to play with the data they could not work with on their own. Researchers began to see the chaos and unpredictability of the things they were studying – weather, fish populations – and that patterns still emerged out of the chaos. As Broderson writes, “the disorder of the natural world was in fact channeled into patterns with an underlying common theme.” The nonlinear equations used are “characterized by self-enforcing feedback processes,” and if they are mapped into a computer will create “fractals,” shapes both natural and artistic.
As for the main characters, they are vividly and passionately drawn. Thomasina is a precocious young woman whose quest for knowledge is pure and unfettered by any desire for fame or posterity (as contrasted with Bernard). Septimus is wry and witty and a lothario, but one who cares for his young pupil. The other characters are less thoroughly drawn but are nonetheless amusing. Chater is a buffoon, Lady Croom a haughty society woman, Noakes an earnest but gauche advocate of the new style of Romanticism.
Romanticism, as will be embodied in the gardens of Sidley Park, requires a bit of background as well. Romanticism was an aesthetic style that contrasted with the Classical, the artistic expression of Enlightenment philosophy. The Classical celebrated harmony, balance, regularity, restraint, and order; it looked to Greek and Roman models of art, architecture, literature, and landscape design. Lady Croom’s original garden exemplifies this. In the early 1800s, though, tumultuous world events made the Classical seem outmoded. As Michael Paller explains, artists wanted “a new art that embraced the whirlwind of change and responded to a new urge for freedom and personal liberty with forms that were equally free, equally individual.” There no rules anymore, or, rather, only rules that arose organically. Personal expression was paramount. God was an Absolute Being whose will could not be comprehended. Nature was what gave us access to universal truths, and was a source of inspiration and a common subject for artists and poets. There was a revival of interest in the Gothic, as well as a “fascination with the irrational, the mysterious, the grotesque, the supernatural, all beyond the reach of understanding.”